Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The World Beneath

The World Beneath Last week I read Cate Kennedy's novel, The World Beneath. I bought it last year but it turned out to be one of those books that I kept on my pile until it felt like I was ready to give it my full attention (does anyone else apart from me do this?). From the first page, I was engrossed, and quickly realised that this was a novel where characters were the core, rather than huge amounts of action or preoccupations with style.

I often talk to students about how creating a great character can lead to a deeply convincing story that you just love to write, and others love to read. I think it's one of the main reasons we read - to find out about other people's lives and how they live with disaster and change and deep emotions like grief and fear. The World Beneath does all of these things. I've read a lot of Cate's short fiction and wondered how she would go about creating a novel-length work - would it be as satisfying for me as her short stories? The answer was yes, so then I had to ask her some questions about the novel, which she has very kindly answered for this blog.

1. In her book about screenwriting, Linda Aronson talks about telling a story that is both "real and unusual". Your characters feel very real to me. How did you go about creating them? And do you see anything "unusual" in their stories?

Characters who are not exactly loveable really interest me. I think one of the things I find dull about most genre fiction is that authors create 'heroic' characters who are really just flattering personas for the reader to step into, like vanity suits. Then readers become aggrieved and affronted when those characters behave in a way which they don't find personally self-validating. So with these characters, I wanted to create people who seemed as real as the people next door, and just as fallible, self-deluding and occasionally irritating. I was hoping to expose them gradually so that readers had to keep reassessing their initial, dismissive judgement of them. I have a sort of theory that we don't need to admire characters to find them plausible, we just need to understand what drives them. So in the novel, I tried to press that idea to its limit - would you stay with these flawed people long enough to understand them - perhaps even to acknowledge that their weaknesses and foibles are your own? Would you find them forgiveable? Can we treat fictional characters with the compassion we need to understand real people, or will we feel aggrieved that they don't flatter our image of ourselves?

2. There were times when I wanted to give all of the characters a darned good shake! Is that important to you as a writer - showing how characters can, or are forced to, change and grow?

Yes, a good shake - I know just what you mean! It is important to me as a writer to portray characters who are behind the eight-ball in some way - stuck in repetitive or destructive patterns, switched off, bogged, stuck. I think it's because I see plot as such a key trajectory for characters like this - something happens to slap them sideways, to jolt them out of their stagnation. Maybe this is because I've 'cut my teeth' on short fiction, where a single event can operate to change everything in a character's life, a small, seemingly insignificant thing which alters their course in some subtle way. Without change or growth - sometimes you can look at it as a crucial kind of 'shift' in the story - I can't feel that the story's really finished. A resolution without a change seems unearned and invalid. I've said before that the characters in "The World Beneath" are mired in stasis, as well as being in a toxic kind of dysfunctional triangle, and I'm interested in the story in repairing that state with the thing the key players least expect, and least want. It seems worth exploring the idea that the thing we most need is often the thing we least desire, and I like the idea of trusting the author to provide the good shake a stuck character is going to need.

3. Did you know how you wanted the story to end before you wrote it? What kind of planning do you do? Or don't you?

I did have an inkling, yes, because I wanted to find a way to allow the characters their 'redemption' without having to make them die in the attempt. This involved creating a storyline which forced them to reach the bottom of the barrel in some way, especially Rich, the hapless father desperate to impress his estranged daughter. So my basic question was: how can I make things worse? (doesn't that sound callous...) At what point are these characters going to wake up to themselves? Because one thing's sure about change - nobody's going to do it voluntarily. I planned the storyline to the extent that each character was confronted with exactly what they had worked so hard to avoid.

4. How aware of structure and pacing are you as you write? Or is that something that you tackle in the revisions?

Because the story was literally a journey, taking place over a prescribed number of days, I structured it carefully along a timeline and chronology. I was also interested in setting up the pace so that the story began in a leisurely way, a lulling way, to suggest the inner dithering and lack of momentum of the characters, then gradually picking up the pace as the stakes were raised. It was a nice serendipity to find other tweaks occurred to me in revisions but basically my working model was a car starting up, moving through first gear, then second, then third, then fourth, then finding a fifth...

5. What kind of research did you do? Did you walk across the Cradle Mountain area like Rich and Sophie?

I did part of that walk many years ago, but when the time came to write the book, I had a very small child and wasn't able to do it again as research, much to my chagrin. I tried instead to immerse myself in images and accounts, charting the topography and environment of each day's walking, and just imagining myself into the landscape. Nothing takes the place of real sensory detail, but because I didn't have any choice I had to fall back on these other techniques. A couple of things changed my initial plotline and made me bend events in a different direction. For example, I had the idea at first to have Sophie, the daughter, sending cryptic text messages home to her mother, who would misinterpret their meaning. Then I discovered there is actually no mobile reception on the Cradle Mountain walk (one of the few pockets of the country, probably, where we're actually out of constant range) so I altered this idea to confront Sandy, the mother, with zero communication from Sophie. I was very lucky to be able to talk to many interesting people about historical aspects of the novel - organisers and participants of the Franklin Blockade, for example, and a volunteer track worker on the walk itself. Tasmanians are great - when I needed details about, say, rescue procedures, I just rang up the Tassie Search and Rescue service and they walked me through what would happen in the event of real walkers becoming lost. And I read a mountain of blogs about doing the walk, which were often quite revealing.

6. Did you approach the writing of this novel differently to how you approach short stories?

Often a short story will begin as an image or a moment I'll notice somewhere, or a fragment of conversation. That can start everything off. But in a short story you're placing everything to push towards resolution, and it's this brevity and compression which makes a good short story so satisfying. It feels like a different discipline in writing a novel - everyone seems to get dealt a lot more cards, for starters, and there's far more room for filling in dimension. I like the way in a novel that you have room to create expansive action and reaction; a character will be painted into a corner, and will blurt something, and another character will take that on and behave differently as a result, and this will alter the whole course of their interaction... that's a big luxury after short stories, where essentially you need to nail just the one thing occurring which alters everything, it seems to me. Especially in the Australian tradition, where most stories are under 5,000 words and usually more like 3,000. I think one of the side-effects of the form not being so respected over the last decade or so is that people think they're easier to write because they're shorter. Whereas of course they're harder for that very reason. Magazine edtors, for instance, sometimes seem to think they're as easy to cut down as a non-fiction piece if space is at a premium. They'll ask you to write something, then ask if you can chop it down to 1500 words, or preferably 1,000.... I can't think of anything more difficult or nerve-wracking. So that discipline is relaxed a little in a novel, and you have a freer hand. A longer leash, I guess. Occasionally I had the odd sensation that I was playing a different kind of instrument, with a slightly different tuning to what I was used to, and I had to stop to think about where the narrative might go next, and what might come out of these characters' mouths. But the fundamental things still held my attention: the wonderful potential of limited point of view, the capacity for self-sabotage, the fascinating and unexpected ways we end up being each other's salvations.

7. At writers' festivals you are nearly always put on the short story panel - is that changing now? i.e. is the perception of "what kind of writer" you are changing?

I guess so. I'm pleased to say that the unspoken feeling that you're a bit of a dabbler in different forms suddenly morphs into the adjective 'versatile' once you've written a novel. Just for the record, I'll always be up for a short story panel - as long as we're not charged with discussing how it's 'dead'. It's a long way from dead, and I would credit it with being my best teacher in every other kind of writing I attempt. I like writing everything, but it's all infused with my limitless admiration and pleasure in the short story form. Any panels keen to share this rather OCD-ish enthusiasm are fine by me!

Thanks, Cate!

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